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The Great Ferndale Food Truck Debate 2012

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This post authored by Nicole Rupersburg of Eat It Detroit.

Street Eats Wednesdays at the Rust Belt Market March 21, 2012. Photo from Ferndale Patch.

Last year Ferndale was lauded for being the kind of forward-thinking municipality that would allow mobile food vendors, a fairly new business concept in metro Detroit, to operate with minimal interference. But business owners are still business owners all the world over, and while they tolerated the presence of this fast-growing phenomenon, they have recently collectively drawn the line.

Now downtown Ferndale’s brick-and-mortar business owners have all seemed to catch a nasty case of the It’s-Not-Fairs, and they’re bringing their rabble rabble rabble to City Council.

Executive Director of Ferndale’s Downtown Development Authority Cristina Decius-Sheppard says, “The response is that people really like the concept of [mobile vending] but [that we need] to balance them better with brick and mortar businesses.” She says that more people are leaning towards limiting their operations to once a week or once a month, and that is currently what the city is trying to work out. The committee is meeting on Wednesday to discuss it more with various restaurant owners, and on April 12 will be presenting their recommendations to the DDA board.

Over the weekend, the Ferndale DDA issued a poll on LinkedIn asking for public opinion on the operation of mobile vendors (which includes both food trucks and push carts) giving the options of no mobile vendors at all, only on special occasions, only one day a week, or any day of the week without restrictions.

This isn’t the first example of food truck backlash; just last week an already-struggling downtown business (that has no website, a Facebook page that is updated once every two months, and is known for keeping inconsistent hours) got all finger-pointy on MLive, pitching a public fit over the brand-new Dago Joe’s food truck and claiming it was killing their business. (At the time of press, Dago Joe’s had barely been in operation a full week.)

But in Ferndale, the huffing and puffing has less to do with the existence of the carts themselves, but the current ordinance which allows them to simply file a permit and request a space and then be in that space any day of the week, as many days as they want, for only a nominal fee - which business owners argue is basically the same thing as a storefront only without all the taxes and financial investment. (Current discussions only address mobile vendors on public property; private party is a whole ‘nuther ball of ballyhoo.)

Which isn’t to say that the idea of a semi-permanent food truck “pod” isn’t on the table. In Ann Arbor, Mark Hodesh of Mark’s Carts has created a semi-permanent seasonal food cart “pod” on a parking lot he owns. He also built a commissary kitchen for the carts to use, so the entire operation is very much in accordance with city and health department ordinances. Mark’s Carts is located just a bit off the beaten path down Washington Street, but has turned into a destination spot and in fact has helped drive traffic to other businesses in the area. Sheppard-Decius says that the feasibility of a similar concept (be it once a week or once a month) is certainly part of the discussion as well.

But what businesses seem to be missing with all the INF-ing is that there is such a thing as healthy competition, and a food truck – even one with its very own permanent parking space on private property – creates a destination and a little something urban planners like to refer to as “street excitement.” The amount of damage done to a brick-and-mortar business’s business is probably comparable to that of a Subway – and business owners certainly don’t have the option of demanding ordinances changed preventing fast food chains from opening next door.

Bottom line is if a person is seeking a leisurely sit-down dinner with drinks and ambiance, they aren’t going to see a food truck and say, “Nevermind, let’s just go here instead!” (Imagine how THAT first date would end.) Conversely, someone looking to grab a quick bite to eat on the go won’t suddenly be swayed by an attractive façade to stop in for a three-martini Mad Men lunch. The clientele base might be exactly the same, but each concept suits different people at different times.

And in examples such as last Wednesday’s “Street Eats” event at the Rust Belt Market in downtown Ferndale, an estimated 2,000+ people descended on the city to get their food truck fix. 2,000 people who might not have been there otherwise, and who probably hit the local bars for a drink or two afterwards. If anything that brings more people to spend money in a city is a good thing and a rising tide floats all boats etc., perhaps the b-&-m businesses doth protest too much? Or should he who pays the taxes make the rules?

What Food Trucks Say About Ferndale [Metromode]

DDA Wants Your Thoughts on Food Carts [Ferndale 115]

It's the first food truck vs. restaurant rivalry in downtown Detroit [MLive]

What Food Carts Say About Ann Arbor [Concentrate]

Portland: Food Cartology [Bureau of Planning; Urban Vitality Group - Portland, OR]

Photos: Ferndale's First Street Eats Food Truck Rally Draws Crowds [Ferndale Patch]